Movie Titans Clash Over Screen/DVD Release Dates

Owners of America’s multiplexes find themselves nostalgic for the old days. No, they’re not regretting the rise of CGI, or 3-D, or the $70 million opening weekend. Instead, the tradition being mourned has to do with timing. The major studios have always allowed months to separate a film’s theater debut from its inevitable release on DVD. But those days, it seems, are coming to an end.

Major studios like Paramount and Sony have been slowly closing the time gap between cinema and DVD release, with Paramount yielding only 88 days in the case of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Sony managed to shut the window entirely, issuing a DVD of the 3-D animated hit Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs while the movie was still playing in theaters. These moves come at a time when Walt Disney chief Robert Iger has already made his position clear. “In order to keep the DVD business vital, that product has to be perceived as being fresh in the marketplace,” Iger said at a conference in Los Angeles this past fall. “The press to move the DVD window up will grow because of that phenomenon.”

Left unstated, of course, is another compelling reason that studios have for this maneuver: Getting the theater and DVD release dates of a new film close together allows them to consolidate marketing costs, saving millions of dollars and permitting them to streamline strategy.

Needless to say, this tactic is not sitting well with the big-screen owners, some of whom ripped Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs out of the projectors in a move clearly aimed at sending a message to the studios. The collapsing window between release dates “was something exhibitors didn’t know about in advance,” said Tony Kerasotes, chairman of the National Assn. of Theater Owners and chief of Kerasotes Showplace Theaters. “The unfortunate situation could’ve been avoided with better communication. I’d hope we won’t see something like that happen again.”

But it’s hard to see how better communication alone can quell a dispute in which both sides have so much at stake. Despite the fact that Cloudy’s early DVD release hardly sent theater owners to the poor house (the film made $208 million global box office), revenues are clearly what everyone’s nervous about. Studios complain that their marketing costs continue to balloon, making it tough to pay for two separate marketing campaigns based on the same film. Fans want to download and stream movies—legally or not—and they’re increasingly turning to Netflix and Redbox for cheap rental options. DVD sales, slumping for years, dropped nearly 14% in 2009, according to tracking firm Rentrak, and even a robust rental market doesn’t begin to make up the profit shortfall. Blu-Ray, which was supposed to be a savior, hasn’t taken hold.

Meanwhile, theater owners have just forked over millions in upgrades for digital projection, 3-D technology, and better service and amenities to lure people out of their homes. They want the theatrical window to retain its debutante status, and they fear that shorter windows will cannibalize movie going. While the “theater experience” remains a strong selling point, it doesn’t amount to much when a family that would pay $50 to get into a multiplex suddenly realizes that it can not only rent the same flick for a few bucks, but it also no longer has to wait very long (if at all) to do that.

Indeed, the last words any theater owner wants to hear are “simultaneous release”—the practice of distributing a movie across numerous platforms at the same time. However, movie industry support is not unequivocal. Few favor the simultaneous release for the big-budget flicks that cluster around summer and holiday mob periods.